I’d been to one of those birthday parties where the only person you know is the host.
At that stage my Spanish was still rudimentary, meaning that only Argentines of the utmost patience and generosity would be willing to listen to me describe my daily routines, in the present tense of course. Since there are in fact no Argentines like that, I knew that I must resort to artificial help; with a bit of Dutch Courage I would become not only a virtuoso Spanish-speaking wordsmith, but also, crucially, an interesting person. To the bottle I went, and found that soon I was holding forth in front of a crowd of one on my past routines (in the imperfect tense).
It was around 2:30am when I left the party, early by Argentine standards; late by civilised standards. It was in a shared house at the southern end of San Telmo, near the intersection of 9 de Julio with Juan de Garay, and I had already identified a bus, the 39, that would take me almost to my doorstep in Palermo.
On the map there was a large block of green opposite my bus stop – lovely, a nice park to contemplate in the early hours. Not quite. Unfortunately I forgot to switch to ‘satellite view’, which would have revealed that the Plaza, in fact a concrete-ridden drugs hole, lay at the doorstep of the Constitución train station, vying with the San Lorenzo football stadium for the title of ‘most unsavoury place in the whole of Argentina’.
In my blissful ignorance I sauntered – or rather stumbled – my way towards my chosen bus station, my flip-flops slapping around on the pavement, my white arms like beacons in the night. I had earlier noted that in my wallet were 200 pesos (around $40 US at that time), a sizeable amount. In my other pocket was my crappy nokia phone, the predecessor of the 32-10, and my little moleskin notebook, chosen that night because it was the only thing I had that contained words and would fit into my pocket.
The street was silent, and the only lamp flickered uselessly. A man appeared from around the corner and veered towards me:
“Give me money.”
I probably should have found this command worrying, but the truth is everyone speaks like this in Buenos Aires. A ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ are luxuries meant only for your grandparents and your boss. So I thought I would humour him, assuming that if I gave him a token amount he would decide not to pester me and I would be allowed to wait for the bus in peace, maybe even read a little. There was a kind of wild look in his eyes which I found unnerving, probably drug-related – ‘paco’ is the favourite in these parts – and I calculated that apart from leaving me alone, he was less likely to do something irrational like attack me if I just gave him something.
The moment the giving was concluded, I was dismayed to see that three previously unseen shadows materialised from under the hood of the bus stop and were walking directly for me. Bugger.
I tell myself now that if they had just stood around me and demanded my wallet then I would have acquiesced. Well, I probably would have; although those 200 pesos could have bought 40 bottles of Quilmes beer…
But they didn’t stand around me. The first of the trio went straight for my left pocket. I didn’t realise it at the time but he actually ripped the pocket open, which later required a sewing job that I was certainly not capable of doing. The other two, and possibly the original ‘beggar’ as well, who for all I knew may have been in on the whole plan, proceeded to attack me in a rather haphazard flailing manner.
I matched their flailing with my own. I had never punched anyone in my life, and my only experience of fighting was in boarding school, in which you were expected to grapple honourably until you or your opponent achieved some kind of head or arm lock, at which point the fight would be concluded and you would leave in silent sweaty satisfaction, your Alpha status confirmed for that day. So my fight with my Argentine attackers, probably in their teens and all at least a head shorter than me, followed the boarding school pattern, but with less locks and more shoving.
At some point three of us were on the ground rolling around. One of the boys, still standing, reached into his pocket and I suddenly considered that he might be carrying a knife, or worse, a gun, so I rugby-tackled him, making sure to take the man and the ball – or, as in this case, the man and the knife/gun.
By this stage I sensed that they were rather losing interest in the whole thing. They had probably just been waiting for a bus when I’d come trundling into view and, short of conversation, they’d seen the opportunity to make a bit of money while having a bit of fun. Whatever the case, I ran off to a taxi that had slowed in passing, sensing a fare (albeit one who probably didn’t have a wallet), and jumped in.
“Plaza de Mayo, por favor,” I said, choosing the nearest populated bus station. Even in times of trauma, it’s best not to waste money on an expensive taxi ride home (at least 20 pesos). The taxidriver railed against my young attackers, cursing them in all the colourful ways that only Argentines know. I agreed with him energetically and assessed the damage: one flip-flop missing – annoying; no phone missing – good; no wallet missing – very good; the notebook?
Bugger. I’d lost my bloody notebook. It must have fallen out of the ripped pocket without my noticing. Full of the last few weeks’ observations, I fancied that one day it would lay the foundations of my Great South American novel. So irritated was I by this turn of events that I considered asking the taxidriver to turn back.
I did in fact return, the next day. After a few minutes scouring around the bus stop I found my missing flip-flop. I assume my attackers left it because it was about 20 sizes too big for them, and a single flip-flop is not as useful as a pair.
The search for my notebook was less productive, it wasn’t even around the corner where my attackers, having realised it was of no value, would surely have thrown it away. I consoled myself in the thought that they would be so anxious to know its contents – the treasure maps hidden within, the coded messages and bank account details – that they would endeavour to learn English and actually read it. Maybe they would even ask me for English lessons…?